Monday, 14 April 2014

Death of the Heart

Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen

This has been on my TBR list for a long time. I was finally encouraged to pull it from my shelves by a list by author Yiyun Li of five books that she rereads.  It seems to me to be a masterpiece, an essential book. I have read The Last September and thought it great but this is even better. At times the writing is exhilarating in its cumulative virtuosity, even when the insights are speculative and eccentric. Or maybe because they are eccentric and speculative.

The book tells of a period of time in the life of the orphaned Portia Quayne,  a sixteen year old girl who is staying with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who have no children of their own and little time or sympathy for Portia. Portia was born when Thomas and Portia's father had an affair which brought an end to his marriage, after which he and Portia's mother lived in a succession of second rate accommodations around Europe. Thomas remembers her as a young girl who "stared at him like a kitten that expects to be drowned." It was their father's deathbed request that Thomas take Portia for a year. They feel that it would be bad form not to accede to a dying man's wish.

The book is divided into three books: The World; The Flesh; and The Devil, suggestive of a religious, or at least ceremonial underpinning in the shape of the novel. And Portia is a sort of sacrificial lamb, an innocent in the halls of experience. Thomas and Anna live a life of formal social emptiness; they are childless and their home is not a comfortable place for a needy young orphaned girl. They act as they think they should, rather than how they want. In fact, their desire to appear correct is so strong that it seems to be all they want.

When Thomas tells Anna that he thinks Portia may be missing her mother Anna's response is hardly sympathetic: "is she really missing Irene? Because, if so, how awful! It's like having someone very ill in the house. Oh yes, I can easily pity her. I wish I could manage to like her better." The only warmth really seems to come from Matchett, who "had been years in service in Dorset with Thomas Quayne's mother, and after Mrs Quayne's death had come on to 2 Windsor Terrace with the furniture that had always been her charge." Her relationship to the house is captured in this comparison of her and the two other servants: "the two girls took orders from Anna, Matchett suggestions only." Indeed there are pages of description of Matchett and I am strongly tempted to quote at length: "The monk like impassivity of her features made her big bust curious, out of place; it seemed some sort of structure for the bib of her apron to be fastened up to with gold pins."; "her step on the parquet or on the staircase was at the same time ominous and discreet." But for all the description and it's unerring accuracy and verve, Bowen also makes sure to tell us how little we know: "No one knew where Matchett went on her afternoons off: she was a countrywoman, with few friends here. She never showed fatigue, except fatigue of the eyes: in her sittingroom, she would sometimes take off the glasses she wore for reading or sewing, and sit with one hand shading her forehead stiffly, like someone looking into the distance - but with her eyes shut."

Bowen respects the mystery of her characters, giving us just what a careful, perspicuous observer can say, and no more. This is one of the elements that makes the book unsettling, as readers we are never sure of peoples real motivations, nor even of their actions. We are caught up in a speculation that never tries to deny that it is speculative.

Portia is the central and most clearly portrayed character. I felt that it was an older Portia that was narrating the book. This fits in with the fact that Bowen drew on her own childhood in the writing. One of the key plot elements is the reading of Portia's diary by Anna. Anna is unsettled by the fact that she is being closely observed by Portia ("it was not like writing at all" ... "She was so odd about me") and Portia feels unable to face Anna with the knowledge of what has been written lodged between them, making things even more uncomfortable than they were. In fact we can see Portia's journey as being one where she learns to be discreet and secret, and that secrecy and discretion are key elements in the make up of adults in these social circles.

We are told that Portia has developed the habit of observing people in the hotels she stayed with, where her and her mother would watch people and make up histories for them. It sounds like schooling for a writer. Another of the characters is also a writer; St Quentin, a particular friend of Anna, or so it seems. He plays a big part in the plot of the diary. He is also shown as an observer, and not a neutral one: "She could feel St Quentin looking, but took no notice: she detected a touch of malice in his pity for women."

One of the strategies that Bowen uses is to fill out one story with another. The relationship between Thomas' parents is one I could not help but project onto Anna and Thomas' own relationship. Thomas' mother seems to have been in control of the relationship. She apparently, shaped Thomas' father's personality - "she was a woman who thought all men are great boys at heart, and she took every care to keep him one." It was also she who told him that he must of course divorce her and support Irene, Portia's mother.  His character was hugely dependent on his good name, place in society and property. Divorced from all of them when he divorced his wife he was left little more than a straw man.

It seems that Thomas is in many ways following his father in being as much a presence as a person, relying for his substance on his home and job and the social navigations of his wife. Anna, too, is more interested in how things seem than what they are. She is unlikely to let feeling distract her from her chosen path in life. Perhaps this is why she is upset by Portia's assessment of her. Portia is a slave to feeling and when she starts to fall for Eddie, one of the young men who buzz around Anna, we sense that it will not have a happy end. Anna, too, it seems had a youthful romance that ended against her wishes. Perhaps becoming an adult in Bowen's world involves insulating yourself against your feelings and always being aware of the right thing to do, whether it is your wish or not. As Eddie says of Anna: "She has depraved reasons for doing the nicest things."

We discover Anna's previous romance through a chance meeting with Major Brutt, who had spent an evening out with Anna and her 'intended' Mr Pidgeon nine years previously. They meet in the foyer of a cinema after watching a Marx Brothers film which Anna did not enjoy (proving her dead to humour?).  Having returned from the tropics Brutt is rather at a loose end and after an uncomfortable few drinks in Thomas and Anna's will take up the formality which was Anna's invitation to call again, largely as he has nothing to do other than relive, faintly, the pleasures of his past.

The central section of the book "The Flesh" is spent not in the cold corridors of Thomas and Anna's house but in the house of the widow Mrs Heccomb, Anna's old governess, who now takes boarders in her house by the sea. Portia is sent there while Thomas and Anna holiday in Europe. Here Portia finds a world that may be coarser but is also warmer and more honest. Sleeping in a room with a painting of Anna as a child with her kitten, Portia is struck by the fact that Anna was once a child with feelings.

When Eddie comes down for a weekend the sense that he is playing with Anna becomes clearer as he flirts with Mrs Heccomb's step-daughter Daphne while ignoring Portia. When she has to return to London, Portia is not happy. she feels more at home with the Heccombs.

In the final section, The Devil, Portia is finally faced with the fact that Anna has been reading her diary and finally sees Eddie as he is. There is nowhere she can call home and she goes to the rootless hotel dweller Major Brutt who has, at least, been nice to her. He has no shelter to offer and also realises that this will probably end his 'relationship' with the Quaynes, something he has come to rely upon as he has few if any other acquaintances that he can call on.

This is a powerful and sophisticated novel, arranged like a symphony. Repeated themes and images build upon each other until each element seems to resonate with the others. It is a novel about feeling, and about the destruction of feelings. It is a novel about how society organises itself for its own protection. It is a novel about how we see each other and how we see ourselves, and of the power of observation and the word. In the final section, the house has undergone a spring clean and the mirrors are particularly sharp, so much so that "their jet-sharp reflections hurt the eye; they seemed to contain reality." This is a book that I will certainly re-read, firstly for the sheer brilliance of the prose and then for the sense of an artist excavating deeply into their own life and feelings to try and discover what makes them tick, while all the time remaining aware that it is a profound mystery.


  1. I've had this on the shelf for years too. Thanks for the encouragement to read something I've skipped over.

  2. Tremendous review, Seamus, really excellent stuff. I particularly like your closing comments: "This is a powerful and sophisticated novel, arranged like a symphony. Repeated themes and images build upon each other until each element seems to resonate with the others. It is a novel about feeling, and about the destruction of feelings. It is a novel about how society organises itself for its own protection. It is a novel about how we see each other and how we see ourselves, and of the power of observation and the word." A brilliant summary.

    It's a book I would like to revisit as well - it's so rich and cleverly constructed. In fact I'm toying with the idea of choosing it for my book group, maybe in another year or two just to put a bit of space between the readings.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. I think I'll leave it a little longer before re-reading but I may do so before the year's end. It's certainly a classic...